Chapter Forty One

"Hey, Stark? Can I ask you a—"

 

My sentence was cut off when a big, red ball of latex came hurtling towards my face. I barely had time to gasp before it struck me, filling my vision with red and knocking me down on my butt.

 

"Sorry, Amber, did you say something?" my alpha asked, readjusting the boxing glove he'd just punched me with.

 

I sat there on the dry earth for a minute, my head spinning, before I was able to get up again. I put my feet under me, but still stumbled a couple times before I found my balance.

 

Crap, he hits hard, I thought, shaking my head to chase away the dizziness.

 

We were back in the circle Stark had cleared the snow out of, both of us dressed in jeans and sleeveless shirts. A pair of red boxing gloves covered Stark's fists, while mine were blue. We'd only been out here about a half hour, but my skin was already covered with sweat, which didn't feel good at all in the below-freezing weather.

 

"Yeah," I finally answered. "I need to ask you about—"

 

This time when he swung his fist out, I was able to see it coming, and I ducked beneath it.

 

"Will you quit doing that?" I demanded, face turning red when I stood back up.

 

"No," he answered, giving me a smug grin. "Any more questions?"

 

Before I could say anything, he aimed another barrage of punches at me. He'd gone over the basic rules of boxing when we'd first gotten here, but that wasn't nearly enough to prepare me for this. You ever heard the saying, "Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee"? I'd never given it much thought, but now that I was fighting Stark it suddenly made sense. He carried himself with so much grace that it was almost like he was gliding over the dusty ground, and his punches were like bolts of lightning, coming out of nowhere and never striking in the same place twice. I had a werewolf's reflexes, so I was able to react to them faster than a human, but Stark had the speed of a wolf on his side as well. Basically, I was a toddler who'd wandered into the ring with an Olympic boxer, her gloves way too big for her tiny arms to lift... and that sadist of a boxer had no problem punching her right in her cute toddler face. Repeatedly.

 

Come on, I thought to myself, that isn't fair. He's not doing this to pick on you, he's trying to teach you how to fight!

 

No sooner had that thought crossed my mind than did Stark pull his arm back and propel it straight into my gut with the force of a freaking jackhammer. All the air went flying out of my lungs, leaving me blue in the face, and I collapsed on my backside again.

 

"Come on, get up," Stark said, retreating back to my side again. "We're not going back until you land a punch on me."

 

"Give me a minute," I gasped, trying to catch my breath again. I slipped my hand out of one of the gloves and gingerly rubbed my stomach. Ooh, that one was going to leave a bruise. He wasn't holding back, not even a little. How was I supposed to learn to fight if he started off like this?

 

"I have to ask you something," I said, still sitting on the ground. It was getting easier to breathe again, but I was determined to get some kind of answer out of him while we were here. "I didn't want to ask you while we were still at the cabin, because, well, I don't want to worry Mom or Kimberly. So..."

 

"Tell you what," he interrupted me, finally lowering his fists. "If you can land a punch on me, I'll answer anything you want."

 

My eyes narrowed. This again? He knew I'd never be able to do it, otherwise he'd never make an offer like that. I sighed, but got back to my feet anyway. If he wasn't going to be nice about this, then I'd have to play by his rules.

 

"Fine," I said, raising my fists. Stark raised his as well, and the fight started again.

 

"Keep your hands closer to your face," he instructed me. "That's the best place to hit someone, so don't make it easy for me."

 

I did as he said, but then jumped nimbly back when his fist shot toward my stomach again.

 

"Good!" he exclaimed. "Learn from your mistakes! Next time, try blocking me with your fists, though."

 

While he was still talking, I darted in and thrust my fist towards his face. Once again, his hands were faster than mine, and he brushed it aside like a paper ball. I saw his right shoulder twitch, and instinctively brought my other hand up. Our fists collided like we were in some cheesy slow-mo action movie, and it stung my knuckles even through the padding of the glove, but at least I was able to keep it from hitting me in the face a second time.

 

"Good!" Stark said. "Very good!"

 

We were both too close now to throw any real punches, so we backed away from each other a couple steps, holding our gloves in front of our faces. In the few seconds of reprieve that granted me, I looked him up and down. I'd read his movements before he even made them, and that had saved me from being punched in the nose. Could I do it again?

 

Before I could think too long about it, Stark swung his fist out again. This one struck me on the shoulder, and a weird tingling feeling ran down my arm. I tried to raise my hand to block another attack, but instead of obeying me it went limp like a wet noodle. Stark raised his hand again, and I cringed, waiting for the blow...

 

"Right here," he said, patting his own arm in the place where he'd just punched me. "There's a nerve there. Hit it just right and your opponent will lose motor control over that limb for a few seconds."

 

He was right. While he was explaining it to me, the tingling became less intense and I was able to move my arm again. It felt like I'd laid on it wrong, and it had fallen asleep. I gave it a few vigorous shakes, and feeling gradually came back to it.

 

"Isn't that dirty— fmpph!"

 

I was back on the ground with my head spinning again.

 

"You haven't hit me yet," Stark said as I struggled to get back up. "No questions."

 

A few seconds later I was ready to start again. We circled around each other like wolves competing over a piece of prey, occasionally jabbing at the other whenever we saw an opening— or in my case, whenever I thought I saw an opening. Not a single one of my punches connected, but all Stark had to do was snap his fingers and a new bruise would appear on me. Okay, no, that's not true. It wasn't like he was using magic or anything. We were both werewolves, which meant we were evenly matched, more or less.

 

The problem was that I just sucked.

 

"You can't worry about fighting dirty," Stark said, surprising me and almost earning me two more bruises on my ribs. "If you have an advantage, you need to use it."

 

"But what about honor, or whatever?" I asked, mentally preparing myself to be knocked back to the ground again.

 

"Honor's all well and good, but we're talking about survival here. If you were to challenge me for my position as alpha, then yes I'd expect you to fight fair. Remember Dalton?"

 

My mind flashed back to what Kaylie had told me at the mall months ago. D.K. had become the alpha of his pack by challenging her and Tyler's father, and then shooting him with a silver bullet.

 

"Unfortunately, we've got bigger things to worry about than pack squabbles," Stark went on. He tossed a couple more punches my way. I managed to block one, but the other clipped my cheek. "We're fighting demons and Slayers, Amber. People like that don't care about honor, so you can't either. You have to do whatever it takes to stay alive, even if that means using some underhanded moves."

 

I retreated a step to think about this. Stark threw a punch, which I managed to sidestep, and then returned one of my own, which he smacked away with the back of his hand like a pesky fly.

 

"So, you're actually giving me permission to fight dirty?" I asked.

 

"If that's what you have to—"

 

This time it was my turn to cut him off. Abandoning my boxing stance, I charged at him, throwing a wild haymaker at his face. Stark blocked it without much trouble, like I'd predicted he would, but that wasn't the point. The point was that it had distracted him from what I was really doing.

 

He didn't see my foot until it went straight into his crotch.

 

Judging by the sound Stark made, I'm pretty sure I kicked his stomach right up into his throat. His face reddened, his eyes widened, and he stumbled backwards a couple steps. Most importantly, he dropped his guard, so I pulled my fist back behind my head and swung it at him as hard as I could. My padded glove struck him on the cheek, and he spun a little with the impact before his knees buckled underneath him and he collapsed on the bare dirt of the arena, flat on his face.

 

"How's that?" I exclaimed, my face flushed with victory. "Be careful what you wish for, old man, because you just might get it!"

 

After the initial wave of pride faded a little, a seed of worry wormed its way in its place. Holy crap, had I just... yes, yes I had. Stark had told me to fight dirty if I had to, and I'd responded by using the most underhanded technique imaginable. More importantly, I'd just kicked my alpha in the ding dong!

 

Stark began to quiver on the ground.

 

"I'm dead, aren't I?" I asked, taking a step backwards. "Um, you okay, Stark? I'm sorry. Like, really, really sorry."

 

I flinched when Stark rolled over onto his back, but then froze when I saw the smile on his face. He stayed lying on his back, but his mouth still opened wide, letting his crazed laughter echo up into the sky. A flock of birds took off out of one of the trees in the distance, frightened off by the noise. He kept laughing for over a minute, pounding his gloved fist on the ground and sending up tiny clouds of dust with every punch.

 

It's worse than I thought. I've driven him insane!

 

"I guess I deserved that, didn't I?" he suddenly asked, turning to look at me. There were tears in his eyes now, but I couldn't tell if they were from pain or laughter. He giggled for a few more seconds, and then sat up. "That was—" he made a face and then lay back down. "That was pretty good, Amber. You caught me off guard."

 

"So, you're not mad?"

 

"Mad? Amber, you did exactly what I told you to do! You saw an advantage and you took it. How could I be mad at you for that?"

 

"I dunno," I admitted. Kicking him like that still felt wrong, but he had told me to do it, hadn't he?

 

"And you've got a good right hook, too," he added, rubbing his cheek. "I think you might have knocked one of my teeth loose. I'm gonna have to put some moonlight on that."

 

"Sorry."

 

"Bah, don't be," he waved a glove hand dismissively at me. Taking a deep breath, he tried to sit up again, and this time he succeeded, but not without making another ridiculous face.

 

"I'll admit," he grunted, using a nearby tree to help pull himself up, "that I hope you'll be a good enough fighter by the time we're done that you won't have to rely on cheap tricks like that. But for what it is, and where you are, that was a good move. Take a break."

 

I sighed in relief, letting my gloves slide off my hands and dropping them on the ground. Going to the edge of the arena, I retrieved my coat and wrapped it around my shoulders. It was easy to forget how cold it was out here in the middle of a fight, but as soon as you were done, and your sweat threatened to freeze to your skin, it was impossible to ignore. Could I get frostbite from frozen sweat, I wondered?

 

"So, what'd you want to ask me?" Stark asked a minute later.

 

I sat down at the edge of the ring with my back to a tree. I paused for a minute, looking down at my knees, thinking.

 

"NOT IF I TAKE YOU FIRST!" the ominous, rumbling voice from my dream echoed in my mind, and I shuddered. I thought back to the giant, shadowy beast my wolf had turned into, and how it had been able to hurt me inside the dream where the smaller animal couldn't.

 

"I just..." I began to say, but my voice trailed off. How did I ask him this? Excuse me, Stark, but what are the chances that I'm going to turn into a monster? I'd been a werewolf for almost eight months now, and I'd never once changed into anything but my normal wolf form. The Silverblood transformation had happened to Kimberly less than three months after she'd been bitten. Stark had even told me why. Her young body, still barely more than a baby, had adapted to the Silverblood strain better than Stark and I had. That was all. Bringing it up again would just make him worry, as if he didn't have enough on his mind already. And for what? Because I had a scary dream?

 

"You okay, Amber?" Stark asked, pulling me out of my thoughts.

 

"Y- Yeah, I'm fine," I answered a little too quickly. "I was just wanting to ask you about..."

 

Come on, think, think, think!

 

"About what you did the day you rescued me from Fisher," I said, my mouth blurting out the first thing that popped into my head.

 

Oh, crap! What's wrong with me? When was I going to learn to think before I...

 

Wait, no. That was perfect!

 

"I saw you do it again the night Kimberly changed," I went on, the words spilling easily from my mouth now. "You told me about it once, but I can't remember..."

 

"My midshift," Stark said, standing up straighter.

 

"Yeah, that," I said, nodding. "I was wondering if you could teach me to do that."

 

He looked contemplatively for a few seconds, and brought his hand to his chin in thought.

 

"I mean, you're trying to teach me how to fight," I reasoned. "You fought Becky with it! It must be useful, right?"

 

Slowly, Stark nodded. "You're right, it is useful, but do you remember what else I told you about it?"

 

I thought back, and shook my head.

 

"I told you that midshifting sucks up moonlight like pulling the plug out of a bathtub drain. I barely used it for a minute against Fisher, but I was ready to sleep for a week afterwards."

 

"Right," I said, his words coming back to me. "But, still..."

 

"I'm not sure you're ready for that, Amber," Stark cut me off. "If you do it wrong, or for too long, you could drain every drop of moonlight you have in you and kill yourself."

 

I hesitated, but then nodded, sighing a little. That was fine. It wasn't what I'd really wanted to ask him about anyway. I could live without—

 

"I'll tell you the basic idea behind it," he said. My head jerked back up to look at him in surprise, and he leveled a finger at me, "But if you ever try it, I want to be there watching you."

 

"Okay," I said, nodding eagerly.

 

"And you're only to practice it at night. Clear nights, when the moon's shining." He paused. "In fact, you're only allowed to do it right before, or immediately after, the moon is full. I won't have you getting moonstarved because of this. Got it?"

 

"Got it," I agreed.

 

He nodded, sighed, and ran a hand through his sweaty hair. "All right, then. You know how it is to transform from human to wolf, don't you?"

 

"Of course I do."

 

"And it's the same way going back. You have to go the whole way. Either fully human, or fully wolf. There's no stopping it halfway."

 

He began to pace around the edge of the ring, and held up his finger. "What you can do is reverse it. When you're halfway through the transformation, you can... I dunno how to explain it, really. You can cancel it, and revert back to the form you were in before."

 

"I've always thought it felt like throwing a switch," I offered.

 

Stark thought about this, and then nodded. "That's good, let's go with that. Now, a midshift is exactly that. You transform halfway, and then cancel the change. Then, before you actually begin to change back, you start the transformation again. It's like flipping a light switch on and off really fast. Do it fast enough, and you'll end up staying in the halfway point between human and wolf. That means fur, claws, snout, etcetera, but you can still stand on two legs and use your front paws like hands. You'll also have the added benefit of some of the extra muscle mass your wolf form gives you."

 

My eyes opened wide. Holy crap, now that he was explaining it to me, it all seemed so obvious. I was almost a little ashamed that I hadn't figured it out on my own.

 

"But your wolf side feeds on moonlight just as much as it does the meat you hunt," he went on. "You know that. Every transformation uses a little bit of that moonlight. Usually it's so little that you can change back and forth multiple times without feeling any worse for it, but when you're constantly changing, constantly reversing the process..." He motioned at me, signaling that he wanted me to finish for him.

 

"If you don't stop changing, then you don't stop using moonlight," I reasoned. "And it'll drain you, just like you said."

 

He nodded. "Exactly. Now you know why it's so dangerous, and why I don't want you trying it unless I'm right here watching you, and there's plenty of moonlight to make up for what you lose."

 

"Yeah," I said, "I understand."

 

"And you're not going to disobey me about this?"

 

"No, sir," I said, completely truthfully. I was slowly coming to learn that just because I could defy my alpha didn't mean I should defy my alpha. Bad things happened when I did that. Bad things that Stark had known would happen, and had given me those orders to keep them from happening. And he was right, midshifting was dangerous. Maybe I'd ask him to teach me someday, maybe not. It's not like I had much reason to do it, anyway. No, this was one order Stark didn't have to worry about me disobeying.

 

Stark nodded in satisfaction, as if he could read the sincerity in my eyes. Hell, he probably could.

 

"All right," he said, picking up his boxing gloves again. "It's still early. Let's see if you can hit me a second time!"

 

 

NEXT TIME: Midshifting sounds like a cool little trick, huh?  I wonder if she’s ever going to learn it?  … I wonder what she’s going to use it for?

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